HIV survivors confront painful memories and new risks in pandemic

In a 15-minute trip to the pharmacy, Jim Morgan, 66, had touched the entrance door, the checkout counter and his face.

“I felt like I was covered in red ants because I felt so contaminated,” Morgan said.


When he returned to the car with his partner, Doug Bennett, 70, Morgan took off his mask, his gloves and his shirt, and started washing himself in hand sanitizer.

This was not the future Morgan and Bennett imagined when they moved from Northern California to the Coachella Valley town of Desert Hot Springs six years ago. They were seeking quieter lives, as well as refuge from illnesses they had both struggled with.


But for Morgan and many others who have migrated to the small towns around Palm Springs, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing them to grapple with painful memories of another deadly threat — the HIV-AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s. It was a frightening time, when they lost close friends and loved ones, and, for Morgan and Bennett, when they first learned they were HIV positive.

The Palm Springs area is often described as 50% retired and 50% gay, with plenty of overlap. The city and its growing suburbs have become a hub for long-term survivors of HIV, with an estimated 10,000-15,000 people with HIV living in Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley.

Long-term HIV survivors, many of whom have severely compromised immune systems, are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Over time, the combination of medications used to keep the disease at bay can cause other illnesses. On top of that is the simple fact of aging.

“There is panic and anxiety,” said Dr. Jill Gover, a psychologist at the Desert AIDS Project. “In this pandemic, once again, they are the highest-risk groups.”

Before COVID-19, Morgan and Bennett often held dinner parties at their home, nestled on a bluff overlooking Palm Springs. But that ended in February when Morgan began seeing stories about COVID-19. He had flashbacks to Bennett — his partner of 36 years — on the verge of death. For much of the 1990s, Bennett was bedridden with Reiter’s syndrome — a form of arthritis that inflamed his knees and elbows. His weight dipped below 100 pounds. “I got by from minute to minute,” Bennett said.

In March, just before California issued its stay-at-home order, Morgan posted a letter on Facebook and phoned friends to tell them he and Bennett were starting a home quarantine. Morgan counts each day spent in isolation on a calendar. They just passed Day 134.

After a career selling photographic film to Silicon Valley startups, Ric West, 67, moved to Palm Springs last fall. West has been living with HIV since the 1990s, and his new doctor in Palm Springs ran a gamut of tests to better understand his health. In early June, he got an unwelcome diagnosis: He had aggressive prostate cancer that needed to be removed quickly.

“It took a while to hit then the reality of it all during this time of pandemic,” West said. “I felt very vulnerable, scared.”


The cancer was removed successfully last week and he is recovering at home. His boyfriend, Michael Felenchak, 34, is helping West quarantine as fully as possible, buying him groceries, cooking and cleaning around the house.

“He’s been my champion,” West said.

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West’s friend and fellow HIV survivor, Marty Fritz, 62, also received a diagnosis of prostate cancer in early July. His cancer is less aggressive than West’s, but the talk of quarantining and isolating throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has taken him back to the chaos of the AIDS crisis.

As AIDS spread, people lost jobs, housing, friends and their lives as the federal government dragged its feet in acknowledging the disease.

“Politicians were demanding doctors report us so they could quarantine us,” West said.

The lasting trauma of the HIV-AIDS crisis pushed West into years of addiction to methamphetamines. When he was deciding where to retire, he looked for a community with dependable HIV health services and a strong recovery community. Palm Springs turned out to be a perfect fit.


His recovery meetings have largely shifted to Zoom, and he has realized his experience with HIV helps him coach others through the fear of this current pandemic. He helps members of his recovery group process their anxiety over the coronavirus, and it has been surprisingly helpful for him, too.

“It gives me purpose,” he said. “It makes everything that I went through back then not without purpose.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company